Disenchantment and Modernity
Weber’s theory holds that one of the defining characteristics of modernity is “desacralization,” a byproduct of crucial historical events like the Protestant Reformation and the ecclesiastical and governmental changes it engendered, as well as distinctly modern ideas, like the spread of Enlightenment rationalism, the predominance of capitalism and industry, and the belief in the epistemological supremacy of science at the expense of the ineffable. Newtonian science removed all of the angels from the heavens, and the Enlightenment deists created “religion within the confines of reason alone.” With time the disenchantment phenomenon only covered more ground, until the “mystery, miracles, and magic”[footnoteRef:1] that once penetrated life in medieval times had become almost entirely obsolete in modernity. Lawrence Scaff has noted, however, that life in such a reasonable world presented many challenges to its inhabitants. [1: Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy; Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion,. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967. 111-113.]
The disenchantment thesis holds that modernity represents a loss of the sacred sense of wholeness and reconciliation between self and world provided by myth, magic, tradition, religion, or immanent nature. It ushers in the disruptive sense of disengagement, abstraction, alienation, homelessness, and the “problem of meaning” that begins to gnaw at the vital core of modern experience and social philosophy. FOOTNOTE (emphasis mine)
Not surprisingly, man does not seem to feel at home in this new world. Unbearably deadly wars and atrocities, unprecedented reliance upon technology, and countless other distinctly modern developments give empirical validity to the theory that modern man is undergoing a massive identity crisis.
Indeed, since Max Weber first posited Disenchantment Theory in the late 19th century, there have been a plethora of criticisms of modernity following in its path, most of which attempt to engage modernity and all that it entails through different focal points, overlapping and drawing from each other along the way. In poetry, T.S. Eliot presents themes of decay, disorientation, and loss that aptly characterize life in the modern world. The same or very similar themes are also present in sociological accounts of the perils of modernity, offered originally by Weber and also by the contemporary Peter Berger through his concept of “homelessness.” For historian Franklin Baumer, the crucial issue is a shift from “being” to “becoming.” There are countless thinkers who approach modernity skeptically, and the common thread that unites them is that at some point they tend to briefly turn their gaze away from modernity itself and to the events, ideas, and forces in history that may have influenced its emergence.
The Origins of Disenchantment
Most attempts to trace modern disenchantment to its roots start with the Protestant Reformation, and pass...